One of the pieces of advice that was passed around online after Donald Trump became president was to keep a list of everything that changes over the span of his term. Experts explained that authoritarians work quickly to solidify their power while deceiving their constituents about their goals. The impossibility of remembering all that would be lost under the looming barrage of reactionary policies and scandals was predicted so the best practice would be to record the country you once knew. The Fight, directed by Eli Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the creators of the acclaimed documentary Weiner, is a piece of that list in film form. Utilizing a caper film esthetic and a collection of heroes that would make Marvel proud, the documentary tells the story of the role the ACLU has had in holding the Trump administration to account. There are wins and losses at all levels of the judiciary, but what the film does so brilliantly is depict the human cost of this stain on American history. It begins with a note of hope and ends with a sound that should haunt us all until the day our national course gets corrected.

The filmmakers focus on four cases and the lawyers defending our established civil liberties. The first is the Muslim travel ban, an action that opens the film. There has been so much protesting of the administration of late that the turnout at airports across the country the night the ban went into effect gets forgotten. Citizens clogged LaGuardia and Kennedy airports in New York, home of the ACLU, and lawyers showed up en masse to help get people get back in the country. Lee Gelernt, a doughy, Diet Coke-swigging, technology-challenged senior member of the immigration rights division of the ACLU, wrote the stay that put the ban on hold. He would also take the lead on the family separation case of Ms. L, a Congolese woman whose seven-year-old daughter was taken from her by ICE officials.

Brigitte Amiri works on reproductive rights cases and a point is made of the wall of files on her desk during a tour of the offices. Her devotion to her cases and work ethic are epitomized by those files, but those qualities take their toll. All the lawyers depicted in the documentary sacrifice time with their families to fulfill the long hours required to protect us all. Amiri took on the case of Jane Doe, an unaccompanied minor who wanted to terminate her pregnancy while in U.S. custody. Amiri argued her case in 2017 before a panel that included Brett Kavanaugh, who comes off as treacherous and mediocre as one would expect before his Supreme Court confirmation highlighted those qualities.

Josh Block and Chase Strangio take the case of petty officer Brock Stone, a potential victim of the transgender ban in the military. Dale Ho of the voting rights division is the lead litigator on Commerce v. New York, where he argued before the Supreme Court against the rationale for the Commerce Department’s decision to resurrect a citizenship question on the census form. From Amiri’s celebratory “train wine” on the Acela express train from New York to D.C. to Ho’s flop sweat the night before he argues his big case, all the lawyers are portrayed as profoundly human as they face courts that are growing ever more conservative and a barrage of hatred for their institution. The vitriol and threats they receive are terrifying, but the law is their higher calling and their service to it is inspiring.

But the ACLU has its own zealots and the documentarians take the time to expose the folly of its pure devotion to free speech. David Cole, the organization’s legal director, is the latest standard bearer to insist that the ACLU represent free speech for all. They have defended alt-right darlings and secured the permit for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that ended with the murder of Heather Heyer, a progressive counter-protestor. Cole insists that the universality of free speech is the price we pay for a free society, but such arguments sound reflective of Second Amendment radicals who shrug at the collateral damage caused by their beliefs.

Trump has managed to bob and weave his way through his first term as president due to the complicity of his own party and that of an opposition party with an aversion to drawing blood. One thing The Fight reminds us is that the American people have been showing up to battle the radical project of this administration from the beginning. The ACLU has been at the vanguard of many of these fights, but, to paraphrase Ho, it will take more than one organization to push the country forward to its potential as a functioning democracy. Whether we can achieve this goal is the profound question of our day and it is left open by the documentarians. We want to hope and there is reason to, but the fight will not end after the results of the coming election.

The Fight focuses on four landmark cases and the lawyers defending our established civil liberties.
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